Friesian Horse

  • HEIGHT: 15–17 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: The area along the coast of the North Sea once known as Friesland, stretching from present-day Netherlands to Denmark
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Striking profile, regal bearing, solid black color, full manes and tails, and feathered fetlocks
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Driving, dressage, and elegant pleasure riding

Friesland, a province in the Kingdom of the Netherlands that lies along the coast of the North Sea, was settled by 500 BCE. The inhabitants became tradesmen, seafarers, farmers, and excellent horse breeders. In 120 CE, the Romans, from what is now England, hired mercenaries from Friesland who brought large, strong horses with them to help build Emperor Hadrian’s wall, which defined the northern boundary and defense line of Roman Britain. Beginning in about the year 1000 CE, Netherlanders began building their own walls to keep the sea from flooding their sinking land. From that time until mechanized equipment became common, large, strong horses were essential to this critical activity and were carefully developed and maintained. Horses from Friesland were widespread and famous by the thirteenth century. There is written documentation of Friesian horses in Cologne in 1251 and in Munster in 1276, and the breed is praised in many books that date from the mid-sixteenth century. Friesians, which were prized for their strength and agility, carried knights in armor during the Middle Ages.

The silhouette of a Friesian is virtually unmistakable, with a noble head set on a long, gracefully arched neck as well as feathering on the lower legs. The mane and tail are always full but on this horse are exceptional.

Though powerfully built and quite strong, Friesians are known for their gentle, friendly nature.

KEEPING THE BLOODLINES PURE

Having a Friesian, particularly a stallion, accepted for breeding in Holland is a huge honor and an extremely difficult, multistep process. As weanlings, individuals are inspected and judged on conformation and correctness of gait. The judges look for balanced, rhythmic action and animation in both the front and the hind feet. Each February, forty to sixty of the best three- and four-year-old stallions, chosen from the top yearlings inspected two years earlier, are brought to one location to be rigorously judged and inspected for conformation and movement over two days.

Usually only two to fourteen of these young stallions qualify for acceptance at a government-sponsored stallion school, where they spend fifty days being trained for riding and driving while their manners and temperament are carefully and constantly judged. The horses are also tested under saddle and in harness by experts in the breed. At the end of the training and testing, the very best stallions, usually no more than one or two, but in some years none, are branded with an F on the left side of the neck, which signifies that they have earned the right to be bred to studbook mares to produce registered foals. The selected stallions are used for breeding until they are eight years old, at which time forty of their offspring are randomly selected for judging. A stallion must show that he is benefiting and improving the breed. He and his get are inspected annually in this manner until the stallion is twelve. If he fails any of these tests, he is disqualified as a breeding stallion and will never be considered again.

The Friesian appears to have descended from Equus robustus, the largest of the wild horse prototypes that roamed Europe in prehistoric times. The lineage of the modern Friesian began in Holland in the early sixteenth century. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Andalusian blood was introduced to the Friesian breed, along with admixtures of other breeds from western Europe. The Friesian probably gained its high knee action and elegance from these crosses, traits that established it as one of the most elite carriage horses in the world. The Friesian is one of the very few European breeds with no Thoroughbred crosses in its history. For the last two hundred years, Friesian breeders have maintained extremely high standards and kept the breed pure.

The Friesian has greatly influenced many other breeds in Europe and North America, among them the Old English Black Horse, the Fell Pony, the Dales Pony, and the Norwegian Dole. Trotting breeds in particular trace back to the Friesian, including the Standardbred, the Canadian Horse, the Hackney, the Orlov Trotter, and the now extinct Norfolk Trotter. It is highly likely that the Shire is a direct descendant of the Friesian.

Coming to America

The Friesian was first introduced to the Americas when the Dutch settled on the southern tip of Manhattan Island in 1625. After New Amsterdam fell to the British in 1665 (and was renamed New York), the Dutch horses soon disappeared, but by then they had made their mark. Although not absolutely proved, Friesian horses almost certainly appear in the pedigree of America’s first true breed of draft horse, the Conestoga Horse of Pennsylvania, which first appeared before the Revolutionary War. Newspapers in 1795 and 1796 advertised “trotters of Dutch descent,” which most likely meant Friesians or horses of Friesian lineage. Friesians also influenced other breeds and types, particularly coach horses, in this country.

During the nineteenth century, trotting horses from Russia and America replaced Friesians as popular harness-racing horses in Europe, and Friesians became increasingly rare. By the turn of the century, in Europe, extensive crossbreeding of the few remaining purebreds nearly ensured the breed’s demise. A few interested breeders founded the Friesian Horse Society in 1913 in an effort to save this fine old breed. At the time, there were only three registered stallions. Thanks to the tremendous efforts of these Friesian admirers, the breed, though still uncommon, is now found around the world. Its future seems secure.

Although Friesians came to North America in the early seventeenth century and were influential in the establishment and improvement of many breeds here, the breed dwindled and nearly disappeared. The first two Friesians to be imported to this country in recent times came in 1975 by special arrangements on a ship. Others soon came by plane. Since its arrival, the breed has steadily gained popularity. These great black horses with bold, forward action now draw large crowds of awed admirers at dressage shows, driving shows, and large horse expositions throughout North America.

JUDGING MARES

Friesian mares are assessed for conformation, temperament, and movement at age three. If a mare qualifies as a studbook mare, she can be bred to a qualified stallion to produce registered foals. Studbook mares are branded with an F on the left side of the neck. Exceptionally fine mares also receive an S on the left side of the neck, designating them as Star mares. At seven, a mare may be judged for Model classification, which requires superb conformation and nearly perfect movement. There are fewer than fifty Model mares in the world. A Model mare is branded with an M on the left side of the neck. Mares that fail to earn Model classification may be presented again in subsequent years.

Both stallions and mares can become Preferred, which is the very highest classification, by a system of points they earn from the merits of their offspring. If they gather enough points, they receive a brand on the right side of the neck in the shape of a crown. This exceptionally rigorous system of classification has ensured great consistency and excellence in the breed. It is small wonder that Friesian horses are so often breathtaking.

Friesians have always made excellent and memorable driving horses.

Note how well these horses reflect the words of the breed standard with an overall appearance of strength and luxuriance. The movement is high, fluid, and bold, at once showy and powerful.

Breed Characteristics

The silhouette of the Friesian is instantly recognizable. The horses are substantial, tall, and upright, and always characterized by feathering on the lower legs. The natural action is high, fluid, and bold. It is showy yet powerful. The horses have a regal bearing but are known for gentleness and friendliness. They excel in dressage and as carriage horses. The fluid gaits are square, elegant, and elevated and are emphasized by the feathering on the lower legs.

Conformation

Friesians stand between 15 and 17 hands and weigh between 1,250 and 1,450 pounds. The overall appearance is of a well-constructed horse of strength and luxuriance. The build is compact. The head is noble and long, with a flat profile, but overall relatively small. The ears point inward at the tips. The neck is graceful and swanlike, carried high and proudly. The shoulders are strong, sloping, and of good length.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

According to the Friesian Horse Society of North America (founded in 1983):

  • The association is the North American representative of the Friese Paarden Stamboek (FPS), the official studbook.
  • There are currently 2,438 registered Friesians in North America.
  • About 250–300 foals are added each year.
  • There are approximately 40,000 Friesians worldwide.
  • In the United States, Friesians are found primarily on the East and West Coasts.

The body is well balanced, of good depth with well-sprung ribs, but not too wide. The back is strong, joining to a croup of good length that should not slope too greatly. The legs are strong with well-developed forearms. The feet are hard and well formed. The mane and tail are abundant, as is the feathering on the lower legs, which should cover the hoof but not be as full as on draft breeds. Trimming of any hair from the mane, tail, or legs or even braiding the mane or tail is frowned upon.

Color

Today’s Friesian is always black, although years ago it came in other colors. The last brown mare was accepted for registry in 1918. The only white allowed is a small star, which is permitted only on geldings and studbook mares.